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Massive solar storm destroys 40 of 49 new satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX

Elon Musk's SpaceX lost 40 of its 49 satellites to massive solar storm

At least 40 of the 49 satellites just launched by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet communications network were destroyed by a geomagnetic storm triggered by a huge burst of radiation from the sun, the company said.

This is reported to be the single largest loss of satellites ever in a solar storm.

SpaceX said in a statement on its website that the satellites were hit last Friday, Feb. 4, a day after they were launched to a preliminary low-deployment orbit about 210 km above Earth.

SpaceX said it routinely deploys its satellites to such low orbits at first so they can quickly and safely be allowed to fall back toward Earth and incinerate on re-entry if a malfunction is detected during initial system checkouts.

According to SpaceX, the speed and severity of the solar storm drastically increased atmospheric density at the satellites' low-orbit altitude, creating intense friction or drag that knocked out at least 40 of them.

Starlink operators tried commanding the satellites into a "safe-mode" orbital configuration allowing them to fly edge-on to minimize drag, but those efforts failed for most of the satellites, forcing them into lower levels of the atmosphere where they burned up on re-entry, SpaceX said.

Did SpaceX ignore warning in weather forecast?

The Thursday launch by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flown from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida appears to have coincided with a  warning about the impending storm by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.

The alert warned that solar flare activity from a "full halo coronal mass ejection" – a large blast of solar plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the sun's surface – was detected on Jan. 29, and was likely to reach Earth as early as Feb. 1.

The alert also said resulting geomagnetic storm conditions on Earth were likely to persist into Feb. 3 at weakening levels."

"This is unprecedented as far as I know," a Reuters report cited Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell as saying on Wednesday.

He said he believed it marked the single greatest loss of satellites from a solar storm, and first mass satellite failure caused by an increase in atmospheric density, as opposed to bombardment of charged particles and electromagnetic radiation itself.

McDowell said the incident raised questions of whether the elevated orbital drag caused by the storm exceeded design limits or whether SpaceX believed incorrectly that the satellites could handle so much density.

He also said that geomagnetic storm activity will escalate over the next few years as the sun nears "solar maximum" in its 11-year cycle of sunspot activity.

SpaceX, the Los Angeles area-based rocket company has launched hundreds of small satellites into orbit since 2019 as part of his Starlink service for broadband internet. In a Jan. 15 tweet, Musk said the network consisted of 1,469 active satellites, with 272 moving to operational orbits.